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Joel Harrison 7: Search

John Kelman By

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Over the past decade, Joel Harrison has created a body of work distinct in its eclectic and multifaceted reach. Compositionally, the guitarist has worked in a variety of contexts, from the ambitious five-movement suite for string quartet and jazz quintet of The Wheel (Innova, 2008) and the pan-cultural, genre-busting Harbor (HighNote, 2007), where he found a particularly strong foil in Parisian guitarist Nguyen Le, to his very personal and irrefutably modern homage to the emergent electric music of the early 1970s, Urban Myths (HighNote, 2009). He's also proven to be an astute interpreter, most notably on 2011's unusual The Music of Paul Motian (Sunnyside, 2011), arranged for string quartet and two guitars, but has tackled more conventional fare in a distinctly unconventional fashion on Harrison on Harrison: Jazz Explorations of George Harrison (HighNote, 2005), with added firepower provided by saxophonists Dave Liebman and David Binney.

There's plenty of firepower on Search, too, much of it coming from tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, whose passionate performance pushes "A Magnificent Death"—one of four Harrison originals—well into the stratosphere, bolstered with similar heat by bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Clarence Penn. But that's only one aspect of an episodic, fifteen-minute reflection on the passing of a close friend in 2009, with references to Philip Glass in its passages of relentless arpeggiation and long-toned themes.

Harrison's choice of string players has always been predicated on being improv-capable, and violinist Christian Howes—back, with cellist Dana Leong, from Paul Motian—is a truly unfettered soloist, but one who still chooses his moments with care, as he does on the guitarist's "All the Previous Pages Are Gone," responding to Crump and Penn's pliant shifts in feel from a simmering tumult to fervent swing. Crump is featured on "The Beauty of Failure," a tune whose painful lyricism mirrors its name, the bassist grabbing his own compelling melodies out of the air, accompanied sparely by only pianist Gary Versace and Harrison.

Harrison couldn't have chosen a more diametrically opposed set of covers, though they do work—even back-to-back. Olivier Messiaen's "O Sacrum Convivum" is a rubato tone poem featuring a clean-toned solo from Harrison, whose compositional and arranging acumen threaten—but thankfully don't succeed—to overshadow his skill as a player. But it's Harrison's rework of Allman Brothers Band's classic 11/4 workout "Whipping Post," which precedes "O Sacrum Convivium," that's Search's biggest surprise. An full-bodied arrangement still leaves plenty of jamband room for incendiary solos from Leong and Penn, leading to a closing section where Harrison's transcription of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts' twin-guitar salvo for saxophone and violin open up into a gritty slide guitar a capella. Search closes with the solo piano title track, co-written by Harrison and Versace. An arpeggio-driven miniature it reflects, fugue-like, on the rest of the album, even closing with a "Whipping Post" theme, albeit more harmonically oblique. It's a fitting coda to an exploratory album filled with memorable themes over sometimes complex compositional constructs, played by a killer septet flexible enough to handle cinematic through-composition with the same aplomb it demonstrates in more open-ended contexts.

Track Listing: Grass Valley and Beyond; A Magnificent Death; All the Previous Pages are Gone; The Beauty of Failure; Whipping Post; O Sacrum Convivium; Search.

Personnel: Joel Harrison: guitar; Donny McCaslin: tenor saxophone; Gary Versace: piano, Hammond B-3; Christian Howes: violin; Dana Leong: cello; Stephan Crump: bass; Clarence Penn: drums.

Title: Search | Year Released: 2012 | Record Label: Sunnyside Records

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